August 06, 2020


Chilling Effect. By Valerie Valdes. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     There is a tendency for first-time authors, who are bursting at the seams with ideas and notions and concepts and enthusiasm, to pack everything they possibly can into a debut novel, cramming it so full of stuff that it becomes an agglomeration of vignettes rather than a cohesive story, much less a character-driven one (despite the fact that, in theory, novel length is precisely right for building reader empathy, exploring our world or others, and so forth).

     Valerie Valdes is not the first debut author to let her enthusiasm run away with her, and will surely not be the last. The fact that Chilling Effect is often a lot of fun, if taken with sufficient grains of salt (make that cups full), shows that Valdes has the potential to create nicely plotted, amusing, character-focused, offbeat books in the future. Until then, readers get this one.

     To understand, at the same time, the potential and shortcomings of Chilling Effect, consider the show-biz maxim never to work with children or dogs, which are guaranteed to upstage their adult human counterparts. Valdes does not have kids or canines in this book, but she does have cats – and, intriguingly, they are psychic cats. And they are an important part of the setup of the novel: reformed space pirate and all-around rogue Captain Eva Innocente has been stiffed on her latest cargo-hauling job, leaving her with 20 psychic cats and no payment. And the cats are about to take over her ship. And then: nothing. Absolutely nothing, for hundreds of pages. The cats turn into lap kitties that enjoy scratches, and the plot goes in dozens and dozens of directions that have nothing to do with them. Thinking up psychic cats? An A+ idea. Introducing and then abandoning them? An F.

     Then there is the name of the book’s protagonist and narrator – an obvious blending of “Eve” (as in “Adam and”) with “innocent.” Of course it’s supposed to be ironic and amusing, since this protagonist has the usual dark past: smuggling, mercenary activities, blackmail, that sort of thing. But maybe it is not as ironic as all that, since Eva seems to have learned precious little from her supposed piratical past: she makes all sorts of amateurish mistakes and goes consistently in wrong directions until, thank goodness, matters begin to coalesce (if not become fully coherent) about three-quarters of the way through the novel.

     To give Valdes credit, though, they do eventually start to come together, and even though most of the book is quite scattered as to plot (and quite absent as to characterization of anyone but Eva), there are enough individually engaging (and sometimes amusing) scenes to make Chilling Effect fun for readers who do not expect too much coherence and who do not think for even a minute that this blob of space opera is anything but fantasy (as opposed to science fiction, whose trappings it barely pretends to assume).

     The central plot is a family one. Eva is estranged from her father, Pete, but is close to her sister, Mari, even though she and Mari are very different in many ways. Just how many becomes clear only very late in the book, with a twist that is either too clever by half or just like too many other twists in too many other books to seem very twisty. Anyway, Mari is kidnapped by a typically nefarious, super-powerful set of spacefaring gangsters known collectively as The Fridge (hence Chilling Effect, get it?). These baddies work by capturing people and then forcing the people’s family members to ransom them by doing dirty deeds of various sorts, with the proviso that if the blackmailed family members let anyone know what is going on, death or the standard fate-worse-than-death will befall the kidnapping victim. There ought to be a simpler way to run a criminal enterprise, but this happens to be the modus operandi of The Fridge.

     So, ok, Eva can only rescue Mari by doing a bunch of things that recall Eva’s own checkered past and force her to return to piratical ways that she has long since abandoned. Valdes tells readers that Eva is ill at ease, to put it mildly, about all this, but she does seem to take to her assignments with more alacrity than might be expected from someone who supposedly finds them distasteful in the extreme. And to obey the tell-no-one demand, Eva has to lie to everybody: the whole crew of her ship, which is called La Sirena Negra, and pretty much everyone else she cares about or might care about. This is a particular problem for Eva with regard to the ship’s engineer, Vakar, a quennian alien (one of many otherworldly characters) whose emotions are wafted about through smell, and for whom Eva has developed strong if perhaps inappropriate feelings that smell as if they are reciprocated.

     Vakar, like other non-Eva characters, is barely sketched, even though several crew members – like those psychic cats – have unused potential. It would be nice, for example, to know more about strong but nightmare-prone, mother-fixated, holographically tattooed Leroy; the ship’s medic and Eva’s longtime partner-in-nefarious-deeds, cybernetic-eye-equipped Rebecca Jones (known as “Pink” because of her dreadlocks); and the pilot, Min, whose body wanders around while her mind is integrated with the ship’s core. On the other hand, readers know just about everything they need to regarding a certain fish-faced, bloodthirsty emperor known as The Glorious Apotheosis, whose advances Eva turns down at a bar – resulting in a galaxy-spanning chase whose end is supposed to be Eva’s imprisonment in the emperor’s harem.

     Eva is the kind of character who believes that owning up to all her misdeeds makes everything just peachy-keen, a fact that may disappoint the very numerous dead bodies and ruined lives she has left in her wake. But she does own up to her shortcomings toward the end of the book – a portion neatly if obviously set off from the rest by having Eva herself kidnapped and subjected to a year of cryosleep, from which she awakens to a series of unpleasant revelations. The basic message Valdes communicates here, whether or not she knows Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, is, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive!” Eva channels her inner (often outer) pirate in a better (or, well, more personally satisfying) cause toward the book’s conclusion; accepts her own limitations and errors (not to mention her family’s severe shortcomings: her father at one point ends up taking over her ship); realizes that lies are a poor foundation for relationships, romantic or otherwise; and generally more-or-less redeems herself with those around her who deserve better than she has given them (if not necessarily with readers, who may find her unapologetically self-indulgent narrative voice a bit much by this time). Chilling Effect is basically lighthearted fun, although it may not be especially funny to readers who are unversed in its multiple pop-culture references and who are not at least moderately fluent in Spanish, used without translation for some chapter titles and in many places within the narration. The book works as more or less a standalone novel, but it is actually stated to be the start of a series, with an excerpt from the next book at the end. In a way, it is good to know that Valdes will have further opportunities to explore the characters she has created, and perhaps deal with some of the many underdeveloped-but-intriguing elements in Chilling Effect. For one thing, the second book should definitely have more psychic cats in it.

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